This Week in Innocence


In 1984, Thomas Haynesworth, then 18 and with no prior criminal record, was arrested after one victim in a series of five rapes over a month-long period around Richmond, Virginia, spotted him on the street and identified him as her assailant. The other four women eventually identified him in a photo lineup. He was convicted of three rapes, acquitted of a fourth, and the charges were dropped in the fifth. He has been in prison ever since. The victim IDs were the only evidence against him.

The problem is, the so-called "Black Ninja" rapes, which bore a close resemblance with those for which Hayneworth was convicted, continued well after Haynesworth was in cutsody. Nearly a year and at least a dozen rapes later, police arrested Leon Davis for those subsequent rapes. Davis was charged with 12 rapes, was convicted of three, and was sentenced to multiple life terms.

In 2005 Virginia Gov. Mark Warner ordered a review of thousands of rape cases after five men convicted of the crime were exonerated by DNA evidence. That review discovered that one of the three rapes for which Haynesworth had been convicted was committed by Davis. The two are similar in appearance.

Davis has always maintained his innocence. The problem for him is that there's no testable DNA remaining from the other two rapes for which he was convicted.

At this point, the prosecutor's office in Richmond believes Hayneworth is innocent, as do prosecutors in Henrico County, the site of the other rape. So does Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a guy who ran on law-and-order credentials.

But as the Washington Post points out, even when defense attorneys and prosecutors agree that a man has been wrongly convicted, the courts aren't obliged to agree.

The Virginia Court of Appeals, which considers so-called Writs of Actual Innocence, has only once exonerated a convict in a case that didn't have the certainty of genetic evidence. The court must be convinced that no jury would convict Haynesworth if it heard all the facts known today.

One victim is advocating for Haynesworth's release. But another, a woman in a case without DNA, remains convinced that she identified the right man.

"Courts are very reluctant to reopen criminal convictions, for reasons of finality and because they worry that the new evidence may be less reliable than the evidence available at the time of trial," said Brandon L. Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor who has studied exonerations.

It's an impossibly high standard, and one that would likely have denied nearly all the 266 people exonerated by DNA testing had that testing not been available. But the flaws in the system that allowed those convictions to happen are obviously just as prevelant in cases where there's no genetic material to test. Perhaps the most important thing DNA testing has shown us is that it's time to rethink the premium that appeals courts put on finality.